Poppies at the Tower

As a touching part of the commemorations of the beginning of World War I, 88,246 ceramic poppies are being planted in the moat of the Tower of London, one for each British Serviceman who lost his life between 1914 and 1918. When the installation is complete, the moat will be full of poppies.


The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry each planted a poppy.

Each poppy is made by hand. See the video at the Tower’s web site: http://poppies.hrp.org.uk/about-the-installation.

Poppies, of course, became symbols of the war because of the poem by Lt. Col. John McCrae, the Canadian physician who served as both a gunner and a medical officer though much of the war. During the Second Battle of Ypres, his battalion faced one of the first chemical attacks, but still held. Like so many soldiers, he avoided death by bullets, bombs, and gas only to die of pneumonia early in the last year of the war.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
          In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
         In Flanders fields.

Some critics think the poem falls apart in the third stanza, where the pastoral and elegiac mode with which the poem opens is replaced by “recruiting poster language.” They have a point. But the poppies worn today—like those planted at the Tower—ask us only to remember and mourn, not to fight. We are free to think that if the fallen are angry, it is not at those who refused to “take up the quarrel,” but with those who started it.

Sorry, Wrong Island


Mykonos is, I suppose, as lovely an isle as one could hope to see, if one's taste runs to the sun-bleached and Mediterranean. I myself prefer cool places where every living thing does not seem to be fighting a losing battle against drought. I'd prefer the heath of the Hebrides or, still better, the woods of the islands off the coast of Maine, even if that meant clouds and rain and more people appearing fully dressed.

I am not sure what men in Mykonos do now, besides tend bar. Once they must have fished, but there is no evidence of that beyond the fish in the tavernas, and they may have been flown in from the same factory ships that supply St. Louis and Milwaukee. Piracy no longer seems to be a career option, but I suspect it once was. Byron's Corsair would have found this a congenial spot. The piety business takes up a lot of land—there are votive churches everywhere, the fulfillment of vows by desperate sailors and their families. They are touching and beautiful in their own way, but I didn't see a single priest serving them, only the old ladies who lend skirts to the half-naked tourists of both sexes and make sure a euro has clinked in the box before a candle is lit. A few guys drive busses, and in off-peak times I'm sure white-washing a whole town employs many others, but mostly the local men are out of sight. Women staff the boutiques and do more than their share at the tavernas.

I’m told that male visitors can enjoy a gay scene, if Greek love is what they're interested in. For the heterosexual male tourist, however, there seem to be only two pastimes. One is standing outside the shops holding a lady's purse and packages while she shops for jewelry or trinkets or clothes in the over-priced boutiques. I saw retired construction workers and computer programmers and business executives from across the English-speaking world transformed into this sort of emasculated cigar store Indian and planted outside every shop in town. The other way a guy can spend his time ashore is to settle into a bar whose playlist features covers of lighter 60’s fare and get quietly or noisily drunk. Before you down more than a couple, you will have heard "Those Were the Days, My friend,” “Try to Remember the Kind of September,” and “The Fool on the Hill,” several times, along with, as instrumental interludes, several renditions of “Never on Sunday” and the theme from “Zorba the Greek.” 

Being a bachelor with a bad liver, and thus excluded from participation in even those activities, I didn't find Mykonos the most interesting place I have visited on my travels. I understand it was a pleasant simple island unfrequented much by outsiders until Jacqueline Kennedy and Aristotle Onassis brought the Jet Set here in the 1960’s. I'm sure it’s more fun for the truly rich, but I suspect that anywhere you go a part of the sad atmosphere of that era lingers. I was but a child in the 60’s, but I recall that the Kennedy era and its aftermath included not just tragedy (the assassinations, the wars), not just nobility (the civil rights struggle, the space program), not just childish rebellion (sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll), but also a brittle feeling that people were pretending to be having a great time but really were fending off a feeling of emptiness. That is part of what I always associate with the Rat Pack, with the part of “Camelot” that includes Marilyn Monroe at the President's birthday party, and the whole tawdry swinging, girl-watching, faux cool, medallions-and-turtleneck-where-my-tie-should-be atmosphere that pervaded the time as much as pot smoke and rock 'n' roll. 

I have no desire to revisit that era. I want to be where people wear their tuxes unironically or dress for a day of fishing. Or perhaps I'm just too old and too single to enjoy any place where you keep hearing a voice asking, “Is that lonely woman really me?” She’s not talking to me, but my only answer would be, “At least you can shop and giggle and swill the ouzo. I’m heading back to the ship.”

A Wingéd Horse or a Chariot of Fire

Trains and train stations are one of the pleasures of a visit to Italy. There are many things that don’t work quite so well in Rome and Florence as they do in the American Midwest—the Internet connections that don’t quite connect, the toilets that lack seats—but the trains are what trains are supposed to be. They leave and arrive on time—even though Mussolini has been out of power for some time now. They are uniformly clean. The dining cars and at-seat meal service provide actual food with actual utensils. The ride is smooth. My generation was raised to believe that everything—especially everything involving machinery—was better here in the greatest nation that has ever been, but the Amtrak ride from St. Louis to Kansas City, while charming in its own way, is slow, bumpy, and offers only the sort of tepid coffee and wrapped but nevertheless stale sandwiches one gets while on jury duty with the county. (I find this odd, since Amtrak is a federal program, and juries at the Federal Courts are offered the best sort of unhealthy snacks, hot, strong coffee, and all upholstered chairs in carpeted rooms.)

St. Louis, like other American cities, has a large and beautiful train station that is an architectural monument. Amtrak stopped using it years ago. Its trains depart from an “inter-modal” terminal convenient for those transferring from Greyhound busses, which is less depressing than the shed (that’s what they called it) Amtrak used when it first abandoned Union Station, but is still uninspiring. Union Station has been turned into a failed shopping mall and the sort of hotel where corporations hold meetings for middle managers. I catch the train at the quaint station in Kirkwood, which is also essentially abandoned and lacks every amenity.

In Europe, the grand old stations are still used for their intended purpose. They have been updated in mostly rational ways, though the Termini Station in Rome lacked a single working ATM when I was last there. The also have interesting artworks, as if they were important places. Next to the Termini Station in Rome, there is a new statue of Pope John Paul II, which is even the subject of controversy. But I am more interested in the statues from the 1930’s on the facades of Stazione Ostiense (Rome’s other public station) and the station at the Vatican.

If I were writing in the horrible lingo they taught me in graduate school, I would say that there is a dialogue between the two buildings. But buildings, being mute piles of steel and stone that cannot form intentions or feel the sort of emotions that lead people to top or correct each other, don’t talk to each other. The creators of these buildings, however, did have something to say, and to say to each other.

Here is what you find on the facade of the
Stazione Ostiense:

Rome Train Station

The sculpture is representative of much of the art of the first half of the 20th century, though not the sort of art that art historians most like to remember. It might be called art deco or some sort of realism, but you see it in New York, in London, here in Rome, and, in the extreme form called Socialist Realism (really Stalinist Triumphalism), in Moscow. Look at the buildings built for London Transport—look at Rockefeller Center.

That it chooses a mythological subject is not unusual in the high days of the mechanical age. Every American my age remembers the Texaco gas stations that displayed Pegasus as the symbol of movement and energy and progress. (We also recall the tune to “You can trust your car / To the man who wears the star— / The big bright Texaco star!” even though the guys in the sharp uniforms who pumped our gas and washed our windows and checked the oil are long gone, and we fill our own tanks and wipe our own windows and ignore the oil until the idiot light goes on and don’t really believe in progress any more.) Here is the pride of the mechanical age: man controls it all, and it takes him where he wants to go.

The train station at the Vatican speaks the same language:

Vatican Train Station

The railroad is once again compared to flying horses, in this case horses that drew the chariot of fire that took Elijah away when his earthly ministry was ended. Whether heaven is just the right word for his destination is something I’ll leave to the Old Testament scholars, but that is where we Christians know he was headed. He is not the only or the most important person who arrived there along with his most important piece of luggage, his body, but he and Enoch may be the only ones who didn’t have to make do without it for a time. Both Christ and (according to the doctrine of the Dormition / Assumption) Blessed Virgin Mary had to entrust theirs to that annoying porter or customs inspector Death before getting them back.

The difference between the two images is in who is controlling what. At the
Stazione Ostiense, we have Bellerophon bridling Pegasus with the bridle given him by Athena. It is clearly a celebration of the power of man—the Bridle given by the goddess of wisdom in this context can only represent science and engineering and man’s mastery over nature. (Bellerophon’s attempt to join the gods on Olympus and his precipitous fall from the back of his wingéd mount is a part of the story that would not reassure those boarding the train that they would reach their destination, so I am not surprised that there is no companion frieze depicting it.)

At the Vatican train station, the horses are unbridled. That is not because they are uncontrolled, but because their driver needs no reins. That driver is Lord himself, who appears only through the movement of his creatures. The horses taking Elijah to his destination are already on the move—and they need no wings—the wingéd angel acts more like a conductor than a charioteer, and he does not so much direct the chariot as ask the passenger to look forward, not back. Elijah himself is still pronouncing some sort of blessing on Elisha, even as the wheels turn and his mantle falls from his shoulder to be clutched by his successor.

If the public station says, “Man now has the power to go wherever he pleases whenever he likes,” the Vatican station says, “In all your travels, remember your final destination, and that you may be called there when you least expect it, leaving all your power behind.” I am afraid I have lost my early faith in what the public station says; the Vatican station’s message seems ever truer.

The Second Cousin Once-Removed
Is Asked to Give a Wedding Toast

John and Jane: During most of this wonderful day I know you have only been able to gaze at each other, and since you look so lovely, that is understandable. At other times you have basked in the glow of being surrounded by those whose love has supported you thus far—your friends, old and new, the family members you have known forever, and your parents. But now and then you must have looked around the church or this banquet hall and asked yourselves, “Who are these people? Are they really related to me? How did that happen?”

Those must have been unsettling moments, and I trust they have passed quickly. But it is important to have all the uncles, aunts, cousins, and other connections here. For what you have done today is transform a perfectly good friend into a relative.

You have doubtless heard that your spouse should be your best friend. And I hope you will very often be friends and always be on friendly terms. I love the old movies where husbands and wives act like best friends—especially if they have a dog named Asta and solve murders on the side. In getting a husband or wife, however, you have not upgraded a friend. You have acquired something completely different. You will find many people who do believe in the spouse-as-friend theory. We even have a name for its long-term adherents: we call them divorcés.

Friendship is one of the great delights of life. It is not, however, essential to human life. (As C.S. Lewis said, “it has no survival value; it is one of those things that gives value to survival.”) What is vital to survival is not having friends, but having allies. And if human life is to continue, you don’t need friends. You need relatives.

Some gathered here are now thinking that that may have been true in the Paleolithic age, but things have changed. Others are thinking that, the truth is that they love their friends more than they love their families. And that second part may be true. But whatever your BFF’s tell you, the main characteristic of friendship is that it rarely lasts through the trials of life. Even some of the people who have stood up with you today may not be speaking to you in a few years—though I hope you will all truly be friends forever.

Who will always be there? Your relatives. We are all used to people having “former friends.” With complicated varieties of coupling that have arisen over the last century we all know—and probably all have—plenty of “exes.” But who ever heard of someone’s “former mother”? or “ex-brother”? or “starter uncle”? Friends come and go—but relatives, even second cousins, are forever.

It is important to remember that, if you meant what you said when you took your vows, your spouse is a relative. You will have to put up with things that would make you de-friend anyone else. Even if you both behave perfectly every moment of every day—and you won’t—you will inevitably sometimes become tiresome, annoying, or just plain boring to the person who sees you most often when you don’t have your public face on. You have not picked a new friend, since friends are always “on approval” and returnable; you have signed on a relative, who will be yours even if the item turns out not to work exactly as you hoped.

Indeed, just as you asked about the odd people at the back tables, “Who are these people? Are they really related to me? How did that happen?” you will find yourself looking across your own kitchen and asking, “Who
is this person? Am I really related to him? How did that happen?” And should you have children, you will ask the same question again and again.

I understand why the brides’ magazines present weddings as the union of a princess with her best friend, since I doubt stories about people voluntarily getting a new relative would serve the advertisers’ purposes. But that is the truth of what a Christian marriage is. And let me suggest that this view is not as grim as it seems.

For your relatives, your connection is a fact, not a choice. We can’t drop you even if we want to: we will still be relatives even if we never see each other. And unless we are dead to all duty, our love for you is also a fact. We will all act on it even if seeing one another very often isn’t a top priority. In the same way, your vows have made your connection with each other an unchangeable fact. And your love for each other is also a fact, beside which all fantasies must pale. If bad times come, that will be a comfort. And in good times, you will be secure in the knowledge that you will be loved even when you are not as happy and charming as you are now. And as a bonus, you have a larger pool of people whom you can at least ask for help moving, or for a loan, or for kidney. (Be prepared for stories about bad backs, assets tied up in inaccessible trusts, and hitherto undiscovered blood disorders: I know what we’re like.)

And now, I ask everyone—both the friends I have slighted and the relatives who now rejoice in a larger, more interesting family—to raise their glasses as I give the new relatives one piece of advice: Always try to be friends—it makes family life go much more smoothly.

Down the Drain?

I have just visited the 911 Memorial at Ground Zero for the first time. The Museum is not yet open, and the towers of the new World Trade Center remain unfinished, more than a decade after the twin towers came down. But the essential elements of the memorial are in place: a plaza full of trees containing two great waterworks created on the footprints of the two towers, around which are engraved the names of those who were killed on that awful day.


I was glad to be around so many people who had come to pay their respects even early on a cold Saturday morning. They had almost all made their way to the site as something more than tourists, and there was a natural reverence among them that didn’t need to be reinforced by calls for quiet and decorum. Many were clearly moved, especially by the tree that is said to have survived the attack and has been tended and replanted to take its place in the urban forest that will grow from the many saplings planted on the plaza. But the monument itself seemed neither comforting nor inspiring.

The two waterworks are not fountains or pools, both of which could suggest new life. Nothing bursts upward, and the cascades of water are never live-giving or fructifying. Everything flows downhill and winds up lost in what are really nothing more than two massive drains.

If the designers’ purpose was to show nothing but dead loss, their work succeeds. Looking over the names to the black orifice below, one can hardly think anything but, “All those lives down the drain.” While I cannot say that view of the events of 9/11 is untrue, I cannot see why anyone would want to embody it in a huge and expensive monument.

I know some of the reasons that the monument has taken this form. The families of the victims—or many of them—objected to the site being returned to productive use. For them, it was not just the scene of the crime, but the tomb of those they had lost, since the bodies had been vaporized in the fires or annealed into the rumble. Many traditional forms of monument would be impossible, because any specific religious iconography would be inappropriate, because no higher cause was furthered by the calamity, and because, aside from the policemen, firemen, and other public safety officers, few of those memorialized sacrificed their lives, and there was thus no place for the laurels that mark the heroic fallen.

Still, I am saddened that it was decided to mark the site with these emblems of pure loss. In cemeteries across the country I have seen monuments to people who died equally senseless, meaningless deaths, though never ones tinged with so much human malice. The victims of riverboat explosions or cholera epidemics are usually marked by something like an obelisk. Pointing skyward, those columns suggest hope. Do we now have a shared culture that cannot agree even to hope for, if not a life to come, a better life for others? That the “Survivor Tree” has become an important part of the site suggests we can.

I wish a monument embodying hope and resolve had been created for the dead of 9/ll—and I wish the monument had not been created on so vast a scale and that it had not made the site unusable. A place where people died going about the daily business of life should have been returned to its former uses, not left as two lifeless cavities. Nations that dwell on their defeats are never happy ones—as anyone who has met an Irishman still refighting the Battle of the Boyne or a Serb still breathing vengeance over that awful day on the Field of Blackbirds knows. We have left two open wounds running forever in our greatest city: I am not sure that will turn out to be healthy for our country.

But whatever a critic may say, the site will be used, and that use will make it sacred. I uncovered my head and prayed for the souls of all who died that day as I watched the water drain into the void. Beside me, a few people searched for specific names, and many craned their necks to see how the new towers were progressing. (Slowly, slowly!) Neither the ordinary people who suffered a senseless crime nor the heroes who laid down their lives for others will be forgotten. And that matters more than architecture.

When in Rome: Don't Snap, Don't Push

I have just returned from Rome, where I was able to attend events associated with the Consistory of the College of Cardinals. The new grandmaster of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre, Archbishop O’Brien, received the ring and red biretta that mark his new status as a cardinal, as did Archbishop Dolan of New York and about twenty other prelates from around the world. I had a great time with a group from St. Louis, and I will only make two remarks.

First, I have come to believe that there is a new threat to any decorum in public ceremony, one that most of us harbor in our own pockets. That is, of course, the cellular phone with its easy-to-use camera. Cameras were always bad for public ceremonies, since they take the members of the audience or congregation or crowd out of the role of participant and put them in the role of private creator of images. But only a few people toted big cameras and the obvious disruption caused by their flash bulbs enforced some restraint. The cellphone allows almost everyone to retreat into his own viewfinder. And the cameras are no longer held at eye level, so that there is some chance of seeing over the heads of the snapshot monger. Instead, they are head high above the head, so that the view of those in the back is blocked by a sea of little screens showing tiny bits of what they obscure. Since people are willing to hold even iPads over their heads, there is not much chance for the back rows to glimpse anything, especially since people lost in the robotic viewfinder don’t even notice that fellow human beings are inconvenienced when they climb atop chairs.

If I had my way, I would ban all amateur photography at public events. Leave the image-capture to the pros, people, and actually pay attention to the event you have crossed the seas to take part in. I don’t think that policy is likely to be instituted widely in many places, but as I wait I will share a second dream. Another thing that reduces the participant to the role of spectator is amplification. It is indeed necessary at times, but too often it is needed only to overcome the buzz it itself creates. (It is always a crutch that poorly trained speakers rely on.) The effect of amplification is to take away from the people one of their most important roles: maintaining silence. The ambient buzz and the artificially loud voices make it seem not just possible, but appropriate to rustle and chat to one’s heart’s content. These are two technologies that are used mostly because they exist, not because they have made anyone’s experience richer.

Second, while I nurture all the appropriate shame for the crimes and failings of Anglo-Saxon culture from Wounded Knee to Colonel Sanders, I rejoice in a quality that our culture still nurtures better than most others. It seems to be losing it hold even among English-speakers, but we still are better at it than most of the world. Our great contribution to world culture: Queuing Up. For the most part, we are good at standing in line. We do not do it sullenly and under duress, like the Russians; we do it in a spirit of fairness and camaraderie. Most of the people of Europe, to judge from the pilgrims in Rome, were never introduced to the idea that jumping the queue is one of the most despicable acts a person can commit. The rich, the poor, the well-dressed, the sloppy, the lay, the religious—all Europeans believe that sharp elbows and unceasing efforts to contort rat-like into any space in front of someone who has been waiting longer are fair weapons in the war of all against all to get a better seat.

To my brethren on the continent, I offer this plea. Reject American culture, if you like. Burn the McDonalds, the KFC, the Gaps, even the Starbucks. Listen to your own music instead of the Delta Blues as imported through Liverpool. Stop watching our stupider movies and festooning their creators with medals. Push it all away. But learn this from us: the path to true happiness is a well-respected line with no pushing and no cutting.

I have few photos of my trip, but here is one. (It was taken during a designated photo op and I had waited in line for it.) I was evidently amusing Cardinal Dolan:


North American College, February 18, 2012